The Government’s Universal Credit system is causing “psycological distress” and fuelling a rise in mental health issues amongst vulnerable benefit claimants, according to a damning study published in the Lancet medical journal.
Researchers from Liverpool University discovered a link between the controversial welfare reform and an increase in mental health problems reported by people in receipt of the flagship new benefit.
The study found a 6.6% increase in the prevelance of poor mental health among unemployed people on Universal Credit when compared to the social security benefits it is replacing, which includes tax credits and housing benefit.
In total, an estimated 63,674 unemployed Universal Credit claimants, or 95% of participants in the study, showed signs of worsening mental health – a third of whom (21,760) were suffering with medical depression.
The study warned that this number is likely to continue rising as a further five million are moved to the new system before the UK-wide roll-out is finally completed.
Lead researcher Dr Sophie Wickham joined calls for urgent reforms to Universal Credit ahead of the next phase in its nationwide roll-out.
“Our study supports growing calls for Universal Credit to be fundamentally modified to reduce these mental health harms,” said Dr Sophie Wickham.
“So far, the government has only looked at the impact of Universal Credit on the labour market, and there are no plans to assess its effect on health and wellbeing.”
Researchers identified factors built into the new system that they believe may be negatively impacting on the mental well-being of vulnerable adults.
This includes the minimum five-week wait for an initial paymentm which the study says is linked to rising rent arrears and is driving low-income households deeper into debt.
The study also blames the crude sanctions regime for leaving claimants without the financial means by which to feed their families and support themselves.
Co-author Prof Dame Margaret Whitehead said: “Given the mounting evidence of substantial mental health harms related to universal credit, it is crucial that the government conducts a robust health impacts assessment of all welfare reforms, including Universal Credit.
“With nearly two-thirds of households in the UK receiving some kind of welfare benefit, any changes to the welfare system – even those with small individual effects – could have major implications for the nation’s health.”
Commenting on the University’s research, Ayaz Manji, a senior policy officer at the mental health charity Mind, said: “It’s wrong that the benefits system is causing psychological distress among people who need support.
“We need to see radical solutions to ensure that the benefits system plays its part in helping people stay well.”
Iain Porter, Policy & Partnerships Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “Our social security system should provide a public service people can turn to when they hit hard times. There is nothing compassionate or just about the roll out of Universal Credit increasing levels of anxiety and stress among low-income families.
“Delays in payments, the complexity of the claiming process and the unpredictability of financial support is forcing too many people into a corner leaving them facing impossible situations.
“We know from speaking to claimants that without urgent reforms to Universal Credit there is a real risk of confidence and trust in the system being irreversibly damaged.
“The Government must work alongside claimants to redesign the system so it treats everyone with dignity and respect. Ministers can begin by ending the minimum five-week wait for their first payment which is trapping people into poverty and debt.”
Universal Credit has faced widespread criticism since its introduction in 2013 and a series of IT problems of other difficulties have led to delays that now mean the roll-out isn’t expected to be completed before 2024.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “People coming into the job centre are often doing so at a difficult time in their lives and there is a range of support available for those with mental-health conditions.”
The study was funded by the Wellcome Trust, UK National Institute for Health Research, and the Medical Research Council.